It was really a shower but he always called it “My Bath.”
Dad had been retired in Fort Myers Beach for a long time. He’d been chugging along happily for almost a decade after Mom died. He had a really cool life. He was volunteering at the library, driving himself to the grocery store, and walking on the beach.
He really slowed down as he approached 90. He hired a helper to do his shopping, laundry, and meal prep. His life became mostly watching TV.
My sisters and I cajoled him to come north to be with us. It was time. (He’d live to be 93.) With great effort we got him here for the last 18 months or so of his life. I am really glad we did.
We were lucky my sister had a home where she and her husband could add an extra bedroom with a private bath for him. It was great that we (my sisters and I) were in a position to arrange our lives to take care of him, and that he had all of his considerable bag of marbles until his last days.
He didn’t look good at first but rallied with regular hours, regular meals, and regular human interaction. The benefits of the rhythm of life in a family home.
At my sisters house she and her husband managed nutrition, medications, and doctor visits through the week . My other sister visited often bringing meals and lifting his spirits. I spent weekends with Dad so they could take a break . Dad was well tended to.
Dad loved my sisters. He really enjoyed man-time with me. We watched TV, went for drives, ran errands, and I took care of his bathing. He definitely appreciated that his bathing needs didn’t fall to one of the girls.
We all got to know Dad really, really well.
Its not like I was the only one who had to deal with Dad’s body. One sister gave him haircuts and did exercises with him and the other, his host, is a physician and within 5 minutes of his arrival at his new home at her place got his pants off and removed a catheter he’d had for the two weeks before he traveled. As she and I hovered over Pops junk I looked at her and said, “Fancy meeting you here.”
On Sunday’s we’d go for long country drives followed by dinner and then his bath
Bathing my elderly Dad was like bathing my daughter as a baby, way-back-when, except she wasn’t six feet two, and (I can say this now), she was a lot less delicate. Kids like routine and at my house it was always dinner, bath time, story time, and then bed. With my elderly father, Sundays were always a country drive, dinner, bath, and then TV.
Bath time with babies is bonding and trust building time. Little ones need to be clean, all over. You get to inspect your kid, to take stock of their various tiny components and satisfy yourself that you indeed do have, for another day, a healthy charge. Its private, personal, and primal. Elderly parents need to be clean all over too, you need to inspect them for barnacles and other surprises, and you need to satisfy yourself you do indeed have a healthy parent for the time being.
He was the color of a bad banana
On his very best days Dads old skin bore dramatic bruises. Every bop into a door or bump into a chair raised large purple blossoms that took forever to dissipate. As they faded they turned yellowish. He was the color of a bad banana. He swore it wasn’t painful – once he looked at himself and said comically: “I look like I’m being abused!”
His skin was also like tissue paper and would tear horrifically. “That,” he admitted, “does hurt.”
to manage his bathing safely, I had to get in there with him
In Dads new bathroom was a spacious walk-in shower stall with a chair for him to sit on and a hand held shower head. Spaciousness was key, because, to manage his bathing safely, I had to get in there with him. The handheld shower-head was perfect so I could strategically spritz him upwards as needed.
Bathing Dad was tricky.
Bathing Dad was tricky. To begin with – he didn’t like it. He was Six Feet Two. He could barely bend any of his joints. He was embarrassed. At 90 he could only fall once in the shower. Grabbing him on his way down would doubtlessly result in broken bones and garish wounds. It was dangerous. He knew it, and I knew it. It needed to happen and he knew that too. The first couple of times were really difficult but we got pretty good at it quickly.
He was all there at bath time. At other times he could be inattentive or sleepy but the man was clear as a bell at bath time.
First I’d start the water slowly and let it get to a pleasant temperature – as you would for a baby. I ran it slowly so it would run out the drain and not get the shower stall’s floor wet – I would need good footing for what was going to happen next. Then I’d get him on the edge of his bed and I’d take off his slippers and sox. I’d get his shirt off of him while he was seated and then I’d get him to his feet and drop his pants. Business time. From that point forward we were the Wallenda’s.
In a hushed house my naked bruised Dad, his walker, and I would walk the high-wire to his bathroom. Several harrowing, very careful steps. We had to shed the walker at the door and there were a few steps yet to go. Drumroll…
Once I told him at this point that “we look exactly alike, naked.” He feigned dire offense. “That’s pathetic,” he said. “When did you get so mean?”
The stall had a lip of about an inch or so and scaling that was the first hurdle. Then we needed to turn him to face the shower head so he could sit, gingerly, on the shower chair. Once seated he was safe for the time being. I’d get a soft washcloth warm and soapy and hand it to him so he could attend to his privates.
For bathing only once a week the guy didn’t really have much odor. He smelled like my Dad and he smelled old but he really had no BO.
I used baby shampoo on his hair just in case I got some in his eyes; he had lots of hair. (Mom said once, years earlier, she thought the other old ladies were after him because “he has all his hair.”) I’d let the water gently flow over his back and his shoulders and down his front and soap him up with the softest of washcloths – very carefully. I’d get up under his pits and spritz warm water up there to flush out the soap. Foot health is a gigantic thing for old people. I’d kneel and wash his feet. While I was down there I’d make sure they were rinsed completely. Traction was going to be very important very soon.
He would enjoy this part once we were underway – after all baths do feel good. I’d let him linger in the warm flowing water as long as he liked. It was never more than a couple of minutes. The end of the bath had a tricky tango and an invasion of his privacy he didn’t enjoy but allowed without protest.
To wind things up I had to get Dad back on his feet in a wet shower and turn him to the sidewall so I could wash his butt. He’d put his hands on the wall about chest high and I would spot his heel with my foot and lean into him just a bit with my shoulder or forearm to pin him — gently. In this way he had a good stance and good pressure on the shower wall – this was as secure as I could manage for him. I’d run a warm washcloth up his crack (sorry) and shoot warm water up there to rinse out the soap. Again just like with a kid you have to clean the whole human. Rashes and infections are often the end of old people and anything you can do to make sure there’s no debris, aliens, or sores anywhere is effort well spent.
Performing this last routine quickly, safely, and effectively, while leaving our dignities intact, was the finale. I’d toss the washcloth in the sink and hang the shower hose and help him to his walker so we could go back to his bed for clean pajama’s.
Often I would say “Well done, Pop,” and he’d say, “Thank You.”